Canada

Ontario starts first reopening stage as new COVID-19 cases increase

Ontario entered its first stage of reopening many businesses such as retail stores Tuesday, even as the number of new COVID-19 cases rose and the province extended its emergency orders.

The official start to the province’s reopening plan includes giving the green light to retailers, some sports centres, vehicle dealerships, pet services and house cleaners.

Those businesses still have to comply with public health guidelines such as physical distancing as they welcome customers. Some business owners have expressed relief and excitement at the prospect of reopening, while others say they feel it’s too early to do so safely.

The province extended its emergency orders Tuesday until May 29, including the closure of bars and restaurants except for take-out and delivery, and limiting gatherings to five people.

However, the government is making a new exemption for drive-in religious gatherings, if vehicles are kept at least two metres apart and only contain members of the same household, and no one leaves their vehicle.

Included in the reopening are multi-use fields, off-leash dog areas, outdoor picnic sites, benches and shelters in parks, but outdoor playgrounds, splash pads and swimming pools will stay closed for now.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce is set to give an update Tuesday on the status of schools and child-care centres.

Ontario reported 427 new cases of COVID-19 Tuesday, and 15 more deaths.

That brings the total in the province to 23,384 cases, an increase of 1.9 per cent over the previous day, which is the largest growth rate in a week and a half. The total includes 1,919 deaths and 17,898 cases that have been resolved.

According to data from the Ministry of Long-Term Care, which is from a different database than the provincial totals, 1,408 long-term care residents and five staff members have died.

Ontario announced Tuesday it is launching an independent commission into the province’s long-term care system.

The Ontario Long-Term Care Association, opposition parties and the health-care union SEIU have all called for a full public inquiry into the sector.

But Long-Term Care Minister Merrilee Fullerton said COVID-19 has “broken” the province’s long-term care system and the province cannot lose time addressing the situation by waiting for the findings of a public inquiry.

“Our residents of long-term care need to be looked after, we need to address the staffing, we need to look at capacity,” she said.

Fullerton said a commission is the best way to do a thorough and “expedited” review. It will start in September, and in the meantime the government will be finalizing terms of reference, leadership and timelines, she said.

The number of long-term care homes experiencing an outbreak has grown over the past few weeks, to 190 on Tuesday, even as the government has imposed increasing restrictions and implemented widespread testing.

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NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said during session at the Ontario legislature Tuesday that a government commission is not good enough.

“Families and front-line workers deserve openness,” she said. “They deserve transparency and the concrete change that can only come with a full and open public inquiry.”

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